May 21, 2005

Sanitizing the war in Iraq.

Since the point when US soldiers began getting wounded and dying in Iraq [and Afghanistan, too, for that matter], a big topic for discussion among some media analysts and bloggers has been the 'sanitization' of the war by US authorities and the US press. While some of that dicussion has focused on the US military's ban on taking photos of the coffins of dead soldiers — whether in Iraq or upon arrival back in the US — a larger proportion has pointed to how pictures of US war dead aren't showing up on television news or in newspapers. At least in what this magpie has read, the consensus seems to be that US editors are afraid of how readers/viewers will react to pictures of US dead, especially to graphic pictures.

The 'mainstream' US media has, of course, been almost totally silent on the subject. Until today, when the LA Times published an analysis of the Iraq war photos that have appeared in some major US newspapers and newsmagazines. That analysis shows that, when US dead are concerned, the print media have almost totally avoided showing pictures, and been only slightly less avoidant of pictures of the wounded. Photos of grief over US dead have been far more common. Tellingly, the media has had far fewer qualms about showing Iraqi dead.

Sanitizing the war
Adapted from LA Times graphic by Jacquelyn Cenacveira, Lynn Marshall, and Jenny Jarvir

The Times reporter talked to editors about the lack of pictures of US dead and wounded. The most common reason the editors gave was that it's a big war and that press photographers are often nowhere near the locations where combat deaths and injuries occur. [This reason makes us wonder how those editors would explain all the photos of US dead and wounded that came out of the Vietnam War. And, for that matter, out of the Second World War.] The other main reason was worries about how the families of US casualties would feel about seeing a photo of their son or daughter in the news, and how readers/viewers would respond to photos of dead and injured soldiers.

We leave it to you to decide what you think about those reasons.

A strong point of the article is how it lays out the process by which photographers and editors made decisions about which photos would get into the news, and which wouldn't, as the following excerpt shows:

Though a few photographers relentlessly blare the 1st Amendment clarion, most said they found themselves on the battlefield balancing a more nuanced set of values and emotions.

Dean Hoffmeyer of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia found out how confounding such calculations could become a few days before Christmas, when a suicide bomber attacked the military mess tent where he was waiting in line with dozens of soldiers.

Blasted to the ground, Hoffmeyer pulled himself up and into the chaos of the deadliest attack of the war on any U.S. base. A young man bleeding to death beside him would be one of 22 to die that day.

Despite a broken lens, aperture wide open, Hoffmeyer fired off several frames of the mortally wounded soldier.

He continued taking pictures of the blast scene images that ran prominently in nearly every American paper in the days to come. But he never transmitted the pictures of the dying GI.

Seeing them weeks later, his editor would describe them as "horrible pictures, wonderfully made."

The married, churchgoing Hoffmeyer has struggled with the decision ever since. He has gotten plenty of support from other photographers and taken hits from a few others, who suggested he left his best work in his camera.

Hoffmeyer thought the pictures of the soldier his hand pressed over a neck wound streaming with blood might be too graphic for publication. If the vivid shots had made the paper, they might have infuriated the Virginia National Guard battalion he had covered, and threatened his plan to catalog the unit's postwar lives. Finally, he thought how terrible it would be if he ever had to see pictures of his own son, age 9, in such a position.

"I don't know if what I did was right," the 41-year-old onetime radio disc jockey said. "But it's what I felt was right."

Another photographer on the front line made the opposite decision, but the result for American newspaper readers was much the same.

Stefan Zaklin of European Pressphoto Agency transmitted the picture of a fallen U.S. Army captain during November's assault on Fallouja. It was apparently the only news picture to be published of one of the dozens of service members who died in the battle.

The photo ran in Thailand's Bangkok Post, in Paris Match and on the front page of Germany's Bild-Zeitung, the highest-circulation newspaper in Europe.

The Village Voice in New York became the first American newspaper to print it this week, along with an essay in which Sydney H. Schanberg argued that the war could not be covered while "omitting anything important out of timidity or squeamishness." had briefly posted the shot in November, but took it down after complaints from the officer's family.

"At first we thought it was a really iconic photo of the terrible violence going on in Iraq," said Dean Wright, editor in chief of But when it appeared the soldier could be recognized, "we thought it was too horrific, because it was more personalized then."

There's a longer version of this post at Magpie, which includes material from a similar article about war photos from the Village Voice, over at Magpie. You can read it here.

[Note: The Flash presentation of historic and current photos of war casualties that accompanies the Times article is in some ways better than the article itself. Its impact is certainly more immediate. Don't miss it.]

Posted by Magpie at May 21, 2005 03:15 PM | Media | Technorati links |